My interest in adapting Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus stems firstly from my wish to explore and convey why it is still relevant to modern day secular audiences whose beliefs differ greatly from those of the protestant Elizabethan audience of 1589. Critics may argue that Marlowe’s text is now irrelevant as few people still believe in the concept of eternal damnation, yet many of the themes within the play, for example those of desire, temptation and power still resonate hugely within society today. You only have to turn on the news to see the effects of these vices on people’s lives, for example when aspiration turns to greed, or envy to violence.
My interpretation of the text understands Faust to be the mankind figure representative of the flaws in each of us, falling into disrepute (and of course ‘hell’) through an act of hamartia, or a fatal flaw, namely pride. In contrast to the focus in Marlowe’s time on antischolastic ideals and the perils of pleasure and ambition preached by the newlyreformed protestant church, the text today provides an opportunity to analyse our own moral and philosophical standpoint. By setting the production under the guise of a modern-day morality play therefore and in an abstracted though contemporary setting, my hope is that it would evoke a reaction from audiences and encourage dialogue about what Faustus’ most damnable sin is by today’s standards.
However Dr Faustus is staged or interpreted it should cause an intense emotional response, and it is essential that none of the text’s original elements of terror are lost. I want my staging to illustrate visually the imagery that Marlowe employs, and also Faust’s degeneration throughout the course of the play, highlighting themes which are integral to its understanding in a modern context, and adding to the overall spectacle and dramatic tension. My aim is that the audience should not only witness Faust’s decline but feel as though they have experienced it themselves, in that he is presented as neither wholly bad nor wholly good and is therefore representative of the human condition.
My research therefore ranges from establishing other practitioners who have themselves updated themes of sin and the diabolical for modern viewing, to conversely studying modes of staging, belief systems and other cultural reference points which are recognisably Elizabethan, as well as thematic research undertaken into utopian idealism and hubris in history.
The production is to be a site specfic theatre-piece within the India Buildings atrium on Victoria Street, Edinburgh. I chose this space as the site of my adaptation for a number of reasons. Firstly the balconies within the circular space are brilliantly performative and link well to Marlowe’s text in alluding to levels of power and hierarchy as well as tension between virtue and vice, and knowledge and ignorance. Not only do the different tiers provide multiple possibilities for staging and positioning of the actors, but they also raise interesting questions to do with the positioning of the audience within the space.
As I want the play to retain its distinct arch narrative, it is important that spectators lose none of the action in moving between performance spaces, placing the audience on the middle tier therefore enables me to consider ways in which I can visually play around with preconceived ideas to do with heaven as positioned above us and hell below, subverting this at certain points. This positioning not only provides the audiences with a hugely effective vantage point in viewing the action in the round, but also makes them intensely aware of themselves within the space, encouraging self reflection. This brings me to my second reason for deciding upon this particular building in that it shares many parallels with Elizabethan Performance Conditions. Similarly to the Rose Theatre where Dr Faustus was first staged, it is a circular space made up of three storeys. Most importantly however an Elizabethan audiences was more aware of itself than any modern proscenium arch audiences, and this fits well with my concept. Situating the spectators in a jury-like formation in the round should help to emphasise my adaptation as a modern day morality play. It is a way of creating firstly a certain pathos for Faustus as a protagonist representative of the human condition. Yet it also encourages judgement of his character, as either the everyman with fatal flaw, or the arrogant and unsympathetic genius on a self-indulgent ego-trip.
Constructivism and Tatlin's Tower
Faustus begins his soliloquy by declaring his desire for knowledge, by today’s standards a noble pursuit. Yet we quickly start to witness this endeavour turning to greed and hunger
for material wealth, signalling the start of his downward spiral. When thinking initially about the set design and what it should aim to convey, I focused specifically on the themes of aspiration and temptation as I felt these held the most relevance for contemporary audiences. This led firstly to background research into utopian idealism and hubris in history.
Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist Monument to the Third International was designed in 1918 as a visualisation of the ideals of the Russian Bolsheviks and as a celebration of the Tsar’s abdication in 1917. The building was to reach four hundred metres in height, eclipsing the Eiffel Tower as the world’s tallest structure.
I have constantly returned to this reference throughout my design development, as the tower represents many things which are strongly relatable to Faust’s folly within the play.
It is above all a symbol of aspiration that never came to fruition; the commission never got past the initial model stages, probably because the design though revolutionary was utterly impractical. For me it is synonymous with the journey of Faust’s character in the play, so hopeful and brilliantly ambitious in its conception, but lacking in the logic needed to fulfil its potential - in the same way that Faustus imagines himself to be “On Earth as Jove is in the Sky” Tatlin seemed to hope his fully realised masterpiece would
become the catalyst for a world on the brink of utopia.
In establishing Tatlin’s Tower as a key research strand therefore, it seemed a natural progression to incorporate this into the set design. With the audience placed statically on the middle balcony, the central part of the rotunda floor will rise and fall on hydraulics, elevating the stage so that action can unfold on a level with the spectators at certain points.
This serves as a visual interpretation of the description of Faustus in the prologue as base of stock, aspiring ever upwards in striving for betterment, as well as of verticalised social structures and mechanisms used by polymaths of the past such as telescopes. Most significantly however it alludes to the biblical legend of the Tower of Babel, where mankind builds a tower that reaches heaven, intended as a challenge to God’s authority, an act of rebellion. The story warns against self-conceit and irreverence, both key themes within Marlowe’s text.
The Rotunda Stage
The second element of the set which I want to explore in depth is the rotunda stage around which the spectators are centred and which forms the top part of the hydraulic system. Being the main focal point throughout it provides many links and ways of transitioning between the three episodes of the play.
An obvious connection made from the outset and even upon first viewing the space was with Bosch’s circular sixteenth century painting, The Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins. Intended to be viewed from above it connects to the location of the audience looking down. When researching Bosch’s early paintings I came across the work of Scottish artist Calum Colvin. His large scale photographic series The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, based pon Bosch’s tabletop was highly formative for me in that Colvin has interpreted the themes of iniquity and vice within Bosch’s work for relevance to modern day viewers, incorporating contemporary themes such as global-warning, consumerism and morality in the late twentieth century. He is combining the terrors of the medieval world and the uncertainties of the contemporary world, and it occured to me that this is exactly what I wanted to achieve through my own practice, in foregrounding the play’s thematic relevance whilst still giving a definite nod to Elizabethan cultural reference points.
Aesthetically Colvin’s computer manipulated compositions bring to the mind the interior of a riotous Las Vegas casino with their chaotic depictions. Las Vegas as an abstracted potential setting interest me firstly because it conjures up an atmosphere which fits well with a modern telling of the Faust story. There are many similarities between the city itself, themes within the text and Faust as a character. Vegas is an all consuming place of excess, pecuniary gain and sin where one goes to quench ones desires mainly through gambling, just as Faustus gambles away his soul. Returning therefore to the rotunda stage as the basis for the set, it is imperative that this focal point is changeable to as to guide the audience through the different stages of the arc narrative. The first two Acts in Faustus’ monochrome study will therefore centre firstly around an abstracted astrolabe. Astroalbes were beautifully intricate spherical instruments used by intellectuals and astrologists in Marlowe’s time to solve problems relating to the positioning of planets and stars as well as time and space. This fits well with the returning motif in the text of Faust disputing the laws of astrology and specifically the whereabouts of heaven and hell with Mephistopheles. Aesthetically my design for this central piece also alludes to Rodchenko’s Constructivist work Spacial Construction Number 12. Rodchenko, a contemporary of Tatlin was also consumed with these debates, and this particular three dimensional piece is equally suggestive of planetary orbits.
To signify the movement of the play from this study space where Faustus signs his contract with the Devil into the middle section the astrolabe panels would be reset at the interval revealing a neon roulette table and presenting an abstracted Las Vegas casino style setting with Mephistopheles styled as a gaudy casino owner.
The Seven Deadly Sins would emerge from trapdoors within the roulette table and the stage would rotate at points throughout Act III and IV, reminding the audience constantly that Faustus’ contract is running out, but also, in returning to this idea of orbiting planets and astrology, referring to the Copernican revolution in the sixteenth century, and the epiphany at this time that the universe did not revolve around the earth, but was heliocentric, a theory which today we find rudimentary.
When deciding upon how the space should be lit, I firstly analysed epic depictions of Hell such as those by the nineteenth century painter John Martin, establishing ways in which characters could be lit from above to create dramatic tension. I also considered projection as a tool to add to the idea of the space being an extension of Faust’s mind and inner torment. The Good and Evil Angel for example would be represented through projection of their lines onto the space accompanied by voiceover indicating that these are the voices of Faustus’ subconscious. Finally the work of neo light artist Dan Flavin provided the basis for my use of strip-lighting within the set. Much of his work from the early sixties is presented as an homage to the utopian aspirations of Vladimir Tatlin, memorialising him in temporary monuments which explicitly allude to Tatlin’s tower in its arrangement of fluorescent tubes. I used his work as a reference point firstly because of this link, and secondly because the neon bulbs fit well with the kitsch abstracted Las Vegas setting. Due to the obviously short lifespan of the bulbs themselves, they can also be seen as a metaphor for Faust’s mortality.
Glitch Art and Textiles
As a way of consolidating my thinking of the performance space as a metaphorical extension of Faustus’ mind I decided to create virtualised glitch art textiles for elements of the characters costumes. This idea stemmed in part from the Chorus’ description in the prologue which foreshadows Faust’s demise, making comparisons with Icarus. To update this idea of “melting” for digital-age audiences, I referred to glitch art and images of Las Vegas light displays to create my own character specific digital prints and screen print patterns for the second half of the play.
Contemporary fashion and anachronistic styling
Narcissism and vanity are vices directly relatable to the world of high fashion today, and because these are key themes within Marlowe’s text I decided to base my costumes on contemporary catwalk garments in the main. I have also, however, endeavoured to recreate subtle elements of Renaissance dress within the styling where relevant to continue presenting features that are recognisably Elizabethan to the audience. Robin and Rafe, the comic fools have elements of male Elizabethan costuming incorporated into their
modern day garb such as the codpieces incorporated into the structured shorts, highlighting the crude and misogynistic nature of their scenes. The tempters Valdes and Cornelius are also designed with this idea in mind, with modern trousers are juxtaposed with fitted cap sleeve jackets and stand up fur collars taken directly from the cut and length of doublets in Marlowe’s time.